Greg Chambers Superfluous Motor Interview

Interview // Superfluous Motor: “Wherever it leads, the music will always be in motion”

A conversation with Greg Chambers, AKA Superfluous Motor

Since Greg Chambers put ‘Trifecta’ online for free, only a small portion of the prog/fusion populace has picked up on it. Quite perplexing.

‘Trifecta’ is a mammoth, immersive three-piece album–one part Fusion, one part Funk, one part Prog–propelled by challenging rhythms, playful twists and turns, and ever-changing moods that wrap themselves around you like a blanket. One moment, the music hangs in the background, quietly and innocently, the next its melodies grab you and don’t let go.

During the recent lockdown, I’ve come to appreciate both qualities of the music; the reason I got in touch with Greg in the first place. As a bonus, Superfluous Motor was a well-kept secret only a few hundred people knew about.

That’s no surprise. Superfluous Motor is a one-man-band that operates entirely outside of the music business. You won’t find ‘Trifecta’ on CD or vinyl. You can’t catch Superfluous Motor on tour.

“I’m terrible at self-promotion”, Greg told me. But judging from the reactions on his Bandcamp and YouTube channels, Superfluous Motor has the power to affect listeners deeply.

I sat down with Greg–virtually, with a very safe social distance of 6000 km–and asked him about his life as an artist outside of the mainstream.

Let me start by quoting some of the comments listeners left below your YouTube videos: “Soundtrack to my life.” “Perfect music for writing.” “Listening to it while hiking in British Columbia.” It seems like your music takes people places. How would explain that specific ‘transporting’ quality? 

Greg Chambers (Superfluous Motor): “First off, it honours me deeply to see comments like that. Knowing that my music has had that effect on even one person, let alone several people, is encouraging and meaningful to me.”

On his approach to albums:
“Who in their right mind would release a concept album in 2020?”

“I think the ‘secret sauce’ that might make my music immersive–for lack of a better word–stems from my progressive rock influences. All my favourite 70s era prog rock albums have the same sort of immersive vibe. There’s a lot of layers in the music and you can grab on to different aspects on each listen. I also usually end up releasing full-length concept albums instead of a bunch of singles compiled together.”

Why do concepts fit you better than regular albums?

“I always gravitated to the idea of songs in an album having a flow and all being part of a bigger picture or complimenting each other, especially when the transitions between tracks are seamless. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, but the singles approach is much more common these days. Who in their right mind would release a concept album in 2020?”

Kaleidoscope

‘Trifecta: Fusion’ was inspired by space travel and exploration of the unknown. ‘Idiosyncrasies’ deals with the “quirks, mental illnesses and characteristics that make us who we are”. How do these concepts take shape?

“Usually the full concept for the album doesn’t come together until the arrangement for the songs are mostly finished. Sometimes, I’ll start out with a full concept idea like in ‘The Floating Orange Incident’, ‘Shipwrecked’, ‘Kaleidoscope’ or ‘Idiosyncrasies’.”

“The concepts usually help as a creative prompt for me. The three genres in ‘Trifecta’ allowed me to focus my efforts and make things a little less ‘all over the place’ than my usual content. Although I didn’t fully succeed as the last two songs on the Fusion section were basically mild Vaporwave tracks. But it did help me maintain focus and finish the stupidly ambitious three albums on one album. I also might have overexerted myself because other than the ‘Double Vision’ album with Caius Hubris, I didn’t release a Superfluous Motor album last year, breaking the “minimum: one album a year” streak I was on.

Tell me about your writing process. How do you start and elaborate your ideas?

“It varies. Sometimes it’s an idea I’ve had in my head for a while. ‘Kaleidoscope’ was a bucket list concept album I’ve always wanted to do. Inspired by Jethro Tull’s ‘Thick as a Brick’, I wanted to write an hour of continuous unbroken music with no or minimal repeating parts. The idea for that was to use music to replicate the effect of looking through a kaleidoscope. Whether I successfully accomplished that is up for debate.”

“Some songs come from trial and error. From beating my head against it until the song finally has a structure and flow. I usually write the drum and bass parts first and add the keys, melody and harmony elements on top. Other songs are smaller parts that I write individually and find creative and interesting ways to get them all to fit together. Some songs are piano pieces adapted for a full band arrangement. And if all else fails, I’ll mimic an existing idea or concept and put my own spin on it. I’m sure my ADHD also has a bit of an effect of the twists and turns some of my songs take too.”

Home alone

The question that must arise with everyone who hears your music: composing, producting, playing and programming … how do you pull it off all on your own?

“I don’t want to ruin the magic for anyone but most of it is me noodling around with a midi keyboard and a bunch of instrument plugins in FL Studio [a Digital Audio Workstation – UM]. Then I take the songs and mix and master them. I stick to plugins with high-quality samples for drums and bass and the keyboards.”

About artistic freedom:
“I don’t have a fanbase large enough to anger a giant mob of fans if I make any drastic changes to my sound”

“The drums are all hand programmed by me, but I also have a very good drummer friend who studied music. He taught me a lot of the theory and drum techniques to replicate and kind of pulled me into the jazz, funk and fusion stuff in general. On occasion, I’ve invited musical friends to meander around with me and often take their suggestions or knowledge of instrument into consideration during the process.”

You’ve called yourself ‘not a people person’. Is working alone a direct consequence of your personality?

Partly, maybe. Referring to myself as “not a people person” is more of a tongue in cheek approach to my mildly introverted nature. I have a great circle of friends and have played countless gigs in a few different bands over the years.”

“Being a family man with two kids keeps me busy, but I still work on my music whenever I get the chance. I usually get a few hours of writing or recording done almost every day, but I will also say that lately, my song graveyard is growing rapidly. I’d estimate that maybe 20% of what I write ever sees the light of day.”

I suppose recording on your own, in your home, grants you a lot of freedom?

“Indeed. It’s always been a fever dream to maybe organize a larger group of musicians interested in playing the intricate sounds of Superfluous. But for now, the solo, low pressure, non-committal, full creative control, and non-gigging nature of Superfluous Motor means that it will always be a project that I work on.”

“I don’t necessarily stick to specific genres and don’t have a fanbase large enough to anger a giant mob of fans if I make any drastic changes to my sound. The freedom to do whatever I want has been a great way to learn and grow as a musician. But at the end of the day Superfluous Motor is a vessel for me to produce music that I want to make and want to hear.”

You’ve worked together with Canadian rapper Caius Hubris. It seems to be an odd pairing, but together you made the quite spectacular ‘Double Vision’ and record two tracks for Trifecta. What makes it work?

“It’s that Canadian Hospitality. I think we work together well because we don’t have strict creative limits. No idea is too crazy or stupid for us to do (see our silly funk cover of Mad World for example). There are no egos when we collaborate so we just get out of each other’s way and let each other do what we do best.”

“Caius is also extremely good at guiding me during the arranging process. I might have an idea that is okay at best and he will suggest a couple things that turn it into pure magic. It also helps that we’re basically the same person personality-wise, no joke. He’s basically the extroverted version of me … or am I the introverted version of him?”

Crazy Rhythms

You’re very good at crafting interesting rhythms. Those drum tracks are so precise and adventurous, even in crazy time signatures. Maybe they are the secret ingredient of the Superfluous Motor sound to me. Why do they work so well?

“Probably because of my overuse of polyrhythms. I use them a lot. For the uninitiated, a polyrhythm is where multiple rhythms are layered on top of each other. The drums parts are also usually the first thing I write and everything else is written around them. I wish I knew why they’re so effective but I do know that if a song kicks off with a killer drum groove, it’ll have me hooked from the start.”

About the unlikely influence of techno:
“I wanted to show my friends how easy it was to make, so I made some questionable techno and grew a deeper respect for the process”

Though ‘Trifecta’ is based around funk, prog and fusion, I can’t help but feel the spirit of electronics artists such as Aphex Twin or Squarepusher or Amon Tobin. Or am I insane?

“Electronic music always finds its influence into my music somehow–probably from my early novelty techno music days. It’s not a conscious decision, but you’re definitely not insane.”

Are you saying techno was an early influence on you?

“If I remember correctly, I disliked techno music back in the day. I wanted to show my friends how easy it was to make, so I downloaded FL Studio and made some questionable techno, grew a deeper respect for the process and realized that making music was kind of hard but endlessly entertaining and rewarding.”

“I kept making music until it sounded pretty good (to me) and eventually that silly techno project eventually evolved into Superfluous Motor. However, I didn’t publicly release works. I lacked direction and confidence until coming up with the ‘Shattered Groove’ album. I liked that album enough to release it and kinda figured that it did no good sitting unheard on my hard drive.”

Talking about electronic music, some of your tracks wouldn’t sound out of place in a videogame. You were a gamer, right?

“I’ve always been a huge gaming nerd. I was born in the late 80s and grew up with Nintendo, Super Nintendo and the like. There’s a lot of amazing music in video games and it has always been part of my life. The influence video game music has on me is mostly subconscious (unless I’m making a chiptune track). I don’t directly try or intend to emulate or evoke video game soundtracks in my music, but a lot of my music would fit nicely into a video game.”

“That said, I was working on a cover that featured a mashup of me performing my favourite tracks from ‘Gradius III’ [a shooter game, originally released by Konami in 1989 – UM], but it was eventually scrapped and added to the graveyard because I couldn’t figure out how to end it.”

Niagara Falls and Herbie

You’re from Niagara Falls, pretty close to Toronto, and you’re a big prog fan. So I guess we need to talk about Rush.

I’ve always enjoyed Rush’s music and it’s neat that they’re local. My childhood friend was Neil Peart’s nephew. Sadly, I never got to meet Neil. I’ve also been to Lakeside Park [the title of a 1975 Rush song, Peart lived close to LP during his childhood – UM] several times throughout my life and rode the carousel as a kid. With all that said, Canadian radio has a 35% ‘Canadian content’ quota, so Rush and other popular Canadian acts have been slightly overplayed. Unfortunately, due to oversaturation, I haven’t truly delved deep into Rush’s music. But their overall influence on the music industry has most certainly had an influence on my music too.”

Do the Niagara Falls inspire your music in some way?

“As a born and raised Niagara Falls resident, the allure of the big water drip mostly eludes me. But there is a lot of beauty here, lots of nice nature trails. Going for a hike at the gorge is always an inspiring time.”

“It’s unfortunate that the local music scene here is mostly background music cover bands at bars. But it is a nice city to live in and I love living here. Most of my musical inspiration and influences stem from the city of Hamilton (about a 50 minute drive from the Falls). Hamilton is where I did most of my gigging in the local funk fusion bands and where I truly learned and grew as a musician. It’s a vibe.”

About Herbie Hancock:
“Despite being an absolute beast of a musician, he’s so open-minded, kind and accepting of all music in general”

Who do you consider to be your peers?

“Calling them peers would be putting myself a bit too high on the pedestal. So I’ll just say that my influences that I feel stylistically connected with are probably: Medeski, Martin & Wood, Herbie Hancock, Snarky Puppy, Vulfpeck, Focus, Yes, Tower of Power, Jethro Tull, Lettuce, Chick Corea, Jan Hammer, Soft Machine, Billy Cobham, Stevie Wonder, Billy Preston and, in spirit, Ben Folds.

Herbie is one of your biggest idols, right? Why is that? And is there any chance that the synth opening to Anxiety (of ‘Idiosyncracies) was influenced by Chameleon?

“Darn, you caught me! The synth bass intro to Anxiety is dangerous close, treading into stolen/rip-off territory. Herbie Hancock is definitely my number one idol and biggest influence. His entire approach and attitude towards music was life-changing for me. Despite being an absolute beast of a musician, he’s so open-minded, kind and accepting of all music in general.”

“There was a documentary he made titled ‘Possibilities’ that documented him recording his album, also named ‘Possibilities’ [watch it on Herbie’s YouTube Channel – UM]. The album is a big collaboration between him and all kinds of different artists. Seeing Herbie’s attitude towards these other musicians and his attitude towards music in general was the most eye-opening and inspiring thing I had ever seen up until that point in my life.”

Superfluous Motor's Greg Chambers in a Moog mood
Superfluous’ Greg Chambers in a Moog mood

Tech talk. Bill Laurance of Snarky Puppy told me he always admired Herbie’s set-up of keyboards on the back sleeve of the Sunlight album? I suppose you love all that vintage stuff too?

“I wish I had the money to own any genuine vintage gear myself. But the Hammond B3 Organ will always be ‘the one’ for me. I started playing piano when I was a kid and didn’t see my first Hammond organ until I was about 18, but it was a love at first sight moment.”

“I luckily have access to a vintage Hammond C3 to play and practice on, which is exactly the same as the B3 the only difference is that the cabinet has an alternate design. My gig keyboards are a Hammond SK2 for organs and a Moog Sub 37 for synth leads, I also sometimes use a Korg SV1 for that vintage Rhodes and Wurli sound. Currently, for recording, I use a Novation Launchkey 61 for organs, bass, synths and clavs and the 88 key Korg SV1 for pianos and electric pianos, with both keyboards functioning as midi controllers.”

Digital Man

You grew up in the 90s and 00s. How did you experience the music and how did it influence your tastes?

“My brother, who is two years older than me, would use cassette tapes to record songs we liked off the boombox radio we had. I grew up listening to The Beatles, AC/DC, ZZ Top, Motley Crüe, Rage Against the Machine, Korn, Limp Bizkit and pretty much everything that was popular over the years on the Canadian TV channel Much Music, basically Canadian MTV. When Napster became a thing then we burnt CDs of music we liked and so on and so forth.”

“My brother started playing guitar at a very young age and became a gigging musician before I ever considered doing anything other than basic noodling on the piano. He then got me listening to stuff like Converge, Daughters and Dillinger Escape Plan. I grew up in a rock and roll and hardcore/metal household and can’t quite remember how I got into prog and fusion stuff.”

On the 70s:
“If I was a musician then, I would probably be a guitarist. Lugging around a 500lb Hammond B3 is no fun.”

How do listen to music yourself nowadays? 

“My preferred way to listen to music is currently through Spotify while driving in my car. Driving my car on a quiet road is a nice place to be alone and fully absorbed into the music. I usually try to focus on a specific artist and listen to one of their full albums in one sitting. If I find an album I really enjoy that will be on repeat for a while. But I also will check out stuff on YouTube if the performances are filmed, like Snarky Puppy or Vulfpeck.”

“My wife and I also have a music jar with several artists (52+) written on pieces of paper for our two year old son to draw an artist from once a week and then we dive deep into their musical catalog, in hopes to expose him to a variety of musical themes and styles.” 

It seems that the internet is crucial for you to get your music out, even to other parts of the world. Still, there’s so much music around and it’s so hard to be heard. So how do you reach the right people?

“Very true, Superfluous Motor would be a bunch of tunes collecting dust on a hard drive (or reel-to-reel tape) if the internet didn’t exist. As for getting heard? I wish I knew, it mostly seems like a mix of luck and sharing to the right place at the right time. Most of my growth was from sharing tunes on reddit. But I haven’t been doing that much lately due to their self-promotion restrictions.”

Suppose you started out in the 70s or 80s. Ever thought about how you would be recording and distributing your music in those decades? 

“Superfluous Motor would be a lot less ambitious and probably a cover band if I was doing it in that era. I’d also probably be a guitar player because lugging around a 500lb Hammond B3 plus 300lbs of synths and keyboards is no fun.” 

All over the place (like Kandinsky)

You haven’t put out a physical release yet. Why is that? I’d be happy to contribute to a crowdfunding campaign to get that 3LP edition of ‘Trifecta’ out there 🙂

“It’s mostly monetary reasons combined with subpar organizational skills. The downside of being a one-man-show is that creating content and managing social platforms, adding merch and managing all that on my own might be out of my skill set. I hope I can get it all sorted out one day, I’d love to get my albums pressed on vinyl and offer it to those who would want it or even have my logo on a hat, shirt or rad hoodie.”

The Kandinsky covers that accompany your releases would really work great on a 12” record sleeve. Why Kandinsky?

“I always liked abstract art and felt it fit the ‘all over the place’ style of my music. I saw Kandinsky’s work was public domain and started using it. After it became a theme, my wife came home with a huge Kandinsky print larger than our car that now hangs out in the jam space for inspiring creative flow.”

The cover of 'Scatterbrain' by Superfluous Motor. 
Art connoisseurs will recognize Kandinsky's Composition VIII
The cover of ‘Scatterbrain’ by Superfluous Motor.
Art connoisseurs will recognize Kandinsky’s Composition VIII

Ever thought about going professional as a recording or touring artist and giving up your day job?

“I think about that every day, I’d love to do this for a living, it’s basically the only thing I’m good at. But, I’m also terrible at self promotion and putting myself out there … let’s just say the seeds been planted but who knows what will come of it.”

Finally, what do you dream of achieving with Superfluous Motor? 

“It’s likely to always be my humble little solo project for making and releasing music. As for the future projects I’d love to see more collaborators infusing bits of the work . Wherever it leads, it’ll be sure to be ever in motion.”

Find and discover Superfluous Motor on Basecamp, YouTube, Spotify and Patreon.

Gayle Ellett of Djam Karet in the countryside of Southern California

“We’ve always been outsiders” // A chat with Gayle Ellett of Djam Karet

“When I’m not sleeping, I’m making music,” says Gayle Ellett, co-founder of the legendary Djam Karet, from his home amid the sweeping countryside of Soutnern California. “Music makes life less painful.”

Always the generous type, Gayle took some time to sit down, contemplate my questions and answer them candidly and elaborately.

Over the past 35 years he’s composed and recorded a wide array of music, from improvised experiments with no commercial potential at all [‘No Commercial Potential’ (1985) was Djam Karet’s very first release], all the way to world-exploring library music and international film and TV soundtracks.

Djam Karet No Commercial Potential Cassette Tape 1985

He recently released his second album with improvisational jazz-outfit Hillmen [listen on Bandcamp]. And is currently recording the newest Djam Karet album, to be released in 2019. “We are very self-indulgent”, he says of the band that fires the imagination of eclectic music aficionado’s since 1984. “Really, we make music for ourselves and everyone else can go fuck off.”

If not commerce, what do you aim for as a musician?

GAYLE ELLETT // “I hope to, one day, be the peers of my idols. I want to make ‘top-shelf’ albums. I don’t want to sound like our idols, but I do want to make music that is as visionary and special as the great albums I heard in my youth. Djam Karet follows this philosophy to this day.”

“The recordings are the goal, they are the challenge. If we like the music we make, then we are happy. And if no one buys it, then we will still be happy to make albums, but we wouldn’t release them on CD.”

Which bands or musicians blew your mind when you were a kid?

“When I first heard ‘Sgt. Pepper’ in 1967, I was 7 years old, and it really freaked me out. That album formed wondrous visions of faraway places in my mind, created by these new living gods we called The Beatles. I realized than that music can be as vision-inducing as film or TV. That really impressed me.”

“Having Iron Butterfly’s ‘In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida’ on our home stereo in 1968 also really freaked me out. But I was also very impressed with highly vocal groups like Simon & Garfunkel, Peter Paul & Mary, and the trumpet music of Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass. Basically, the popular groups from the 1960’s.”

“Back then, we only knew about a group’s recorded sound: their LPs and what we heard on the radio. For us, there was no live-music, showmanship or entertainer aspect to music, as we know now. No huge stages with fire and lasers, or videos of big houses, girls and dancers. Music was only music. Period. Maybe that is why I love recording so much, and why I have no interest in playing live. I hate being an ‘entertainer’.”

“We want to create mini-movies in your mind” (Gayle Ellett)

Talking about vision-inducing music, Djam Karet music has been praised by fans and critics alike for its cinematic qualities, which even inspired you to name your latest album ‘Sonic Celluloid’ (2017). What comes first, the music or the titles?

“The music always comes first, the titles last. When you do not have lyrics, finding good titles is really difficult. And sometimes they’re probably not very accurate. Usually, there will be a temporary title while we work on the song, like Chuck’s Tune, or TangerineDream thingy. Later, we try to find a real title. A very hard thing to do!”

“I think the filmic atmosphere sets us apart from other instrumental acts. Very often, the focus is on soloing. Or the music is intentionally boring, like new age. But we want our music to concentrate on the evolving composition. With this approach, we are trying to tell stories, and create unique environments. We want to create mini-movies in your mind.”

It’s funny then that it was an image that first piqued my curiosity about Djam Karet: the iconic, Residents-like guitars-for-heads promo shot that became your official band photo. What’s the story behind that pic?

“I have a Masters Degree in Fine Art. And I thought that the ‘guitar heads’ image would be unique, and show that we are a band, not individual players. Often, if a magazine is going to use one band’s photo, they’ll pick that one, because it is so unique.”

“In a ‘typical’ band photo, all members are standing by the railroad tracks in leather jackets looking unhappy! Or maybe they are all looking straight up into the wide-angle camera above them. Our photo is more unusual. And we’ve had great success it.”

Djam Karet iconic band photo

All these years, you have been the only full-time professional musician in the band. How do you keep the Djam Karet train on track?

“With a whip and a baseball bat. Just kidding! Usually, the guys in Djam Karet want to keep making new records, so it is easy to keep them on track and motivated. Anyone who does not want to play on a certain record, does not need to do it. We are flexible, and easy-going.”

“Most of us have side projects as well, so we are all doing different things musically. But Djam Karet is our main vehicle for making music. I currently play in seven bands. One of these is with my Texas friends Herd Of Instinct. And our label Firepool Records releases their albums. They are great! I also play in a contemporary Arabic music group, a Swedish shoegaze band, and many others.

You arguably created more music outside of the band than with the band. What are you most proud of?

“I am most proud of my work with my acoustic World/Americana group Fernwood. Our third album, ‘Arcadia’, is the best composed and recorded album I have made so far.”

“I also think ‘Sonic Celluloid’ came out really well. Every year I get better at mixing and producing, so I usually like our newest albums the most. But certainly ‘The Devouring’ [released 1997 – Ed.] is a real fan-favorite.”

When starting Djam Karet in 1984, what was the musical climate in California like? To an outsider, it feels like Djam Karet carved out a path of its own between the LA studio scene, heavy metal and hardcore punk.

“The 1980’s here in Los Angeles were somewhat like it is today. Los Angeles has always been a bad place to perform music. Many clubs want you to pay them, just to play there. They want you to, in advance, buy 100 tickets from them for $10 each ($1,000!) and then the band is supposed to re-sell them for more money to their fans. But we never do that. We focus instead on making our own albums, in our own private studio. We’ve always been ‘outsiders’, that was our goal, so we are used to this condition!”

“Heck, if we wanted to be popular, we would have gotten a singer!” (Gayle Ellett)

So LA was tough. How did you get your following in the early days? What was your strategy? 

“We never had a strategy of getting any fans or followers. Really, we only played for ourselves, and for the first few years all of our music was totally improvised. But we lived in a college town, Claremont, California, so we could play at a lot of casual art openings or college parties. But I don’t think we really had any fans. That’s not what Djam Karet is about.”

Djam Karet playing live in the early days

“Heck, if we wanted to be popular, we would have gotten a singer! Think about how many instrumental rock bands there were in the 1980’s – not counting bands dominated by one guitarist, like Joe Satriani. There were none. It is an extremely unpopular style of music. And we know that. But for us, it is really fun and challenging to compose and play it.”

You live in the countryside town of Topanga, not that far removed from downtown LA. How does that particular geographic context influence your sound?

“It is very quiet and calm where I live, here in the coastal mountains of Southern California. I live about 4 km from the Pacific Ocean, so I often see dolphins, whales, sealions and other sea creatures as I drive along the coastal road into Los Angeles. I hear more animal noises, than cars.”

“We are removed from the busy life of the city. So it does influence me personally, and the music I make. I am a country person. Always have been. I grew up spending my summers at our family ranch in New Mexico, raising cattle. So I have a great appreciation for the country life. It is the calming ingredient that I need. Many of my neighbors have horses and chickens. I feel very fortunate to live here in Topanga!”

Gayle Ellett Topanga Southern California Countryside

Back in 1991, ‘Suspension & Displacement’ and ‘Burning The Hard City’ were released as non-identical twins, separately but simultaneously, with musically very different characters. L’Un N’Existe Pas Sans L’Autre, said the notes of both albums. Do you recall why you named those albums the way you did?

“If you want to make a really good album that is 60 minutes long, then it is wise to record about 90 minutes of finished music, and then select the best songs for your hour-long album. Some of the music was rock, and some was more electronic. So we thought that there was almost two albums worth of music there, that we could divide into two different styles. We then wrote some more music, resulting in two very different sounding albums. Probably no one loves both CDs, but we do not care about being popular. Really we don’t care about making music our ‘fans’ will like. That’s not what we do.”

“Anyway, ‘Suspension & Displacement’ was a good title for the spacey-electronic music on that album. While the music on ‘Burning’ was very aggressive. Of course, at that time, we were at war with Iraq – the first Gulf War. So there were many war images on TV and on the news. So that title seemed like a good fit for that album’s music and the era it was made in.”

Prog rock, new age, jamband, techno-tribal, … Over the years, Djam Karet has been put into many different boxes. How do you feel about those categorizations?

“It does not bother me. Our focus is on making music as an art-form, not as a commercial product. We are more interested in applying the concepts of ‘theme and variation’ to our compositions, making long-form music. Often our songs are in an ABCDE-type structure: moving from one section to a new section, then to another new section, usually ending somewhere very different than where the song began.”

Djam Karet Psych Band Photo

How would you describe your music?

“Some of our albums are electronic, and some are rock. Basically, I think we play ‘artrock’. This is a concept, more than a ‘sound’. We sort of play progressive rock, but who really knows? We love the sounds of music more than the labels! It is not for us to decide, that is for the music critics to decide. And we love music critics! We get so many great reviews, with our weird music. We are very fortunate! Oddly, we have had a lot of commercial success, with our non-commercial music.”

Initially you released cassettes and then went straigt to CD. According to the listings on Discogs, Djam Karet never released a lot of music on vinyl. Yet, both the music and artwork would lend themselves perfectly for that format. Any plans for vinyl releases in the future?

“We have released a few albums on vinyl. But they are expensive to make, and they are short, usually only about 42 minutes or shorter. Our first albums were usually about 70 minutes long. Yes, vinyl is making a comeback, and it is growing in popularity. But even now … only about 5% of world-wide sales of music, are on vinyl LP. Most of my friends do not even own a record player and a home-stereo with really big speakers – I do, but I’m rather unusual.”

“A society that does not value its arts, is a society in decline, and that is where we are today.” (Gayle Ellett)

Some of your music is available of Spotify. Of course, streaming and its rewarding system have been controversial, especially if you don’t have millions of listeners. What’s your view on that?

“We make music because we want to, not for the money. So now that there is no money in music anymore, first because of Napster and stealing music, and now due to streaming services like Spotify and Rhapsody, everyone expects music to be ‘free’. This does not hurt us too much, but it is killing the music industry, and killing new music. It really takes many decades to become great at making music, and there are currently many talented musicians who will soon quit making music, because they can not even afford to buy new gear. These new trends are bad for society. A society that does not value its arts, is a society in decline, and that is where we are today. The future of the arts does not look good.”

You issued a lot of Djam Karet albums independently, but did sign a deal with Cuneiform Records around the close of the 20th century.  What did that mean for you in terms of exposure and sales?

Cuneiform has always been good to us. They always helped us sell more CDs than we could on our own. We even tested this in 2001 with the release of ‘Ascension’ and ‘New Dark Age’. The band privately released ‘Ascension’, but we had Cuneiform release ‘New Dark Age’, and they sold a lot more CDs than we did on our own with ‘Ascension’, even though they are ‘sister albums’, recorded at the same time. So they have been helpful to us.”

Cuneiform also re-released some of your back catalogue around that time. Did it manage to bring those early albums to a new audience? 

“Yes, I think they did do that. They had a bigger reach then we did, by ourselves. So they did help us get our music to a bigger audience. Now, I think that the label is no longer alive [Cuneiform is on a sabbatical in 2018, no new releases are currently schedulded – Ed.]. It is sad, because they really promoted styles of music that would otherwise not be heard.

Djam Karet 'Sonic Celluloid' (2017)

You’re preparing a new Djam Karet album, the follow-up to 2017’s ‘Sonic Celluloid’ due out in 2019. What can we expect?

“We’ve started on a new album, that would be somewhat like ‘Sonic Celluloid’, but with more acoustic instruments. Although we are thinking we might write a rock album instead, or additionally. Right now, we are writing some rock-based tunes. During  summer, we’ll record the basic tracks for this, and we’ll see what happens. Nothing will be completed until sometime in 2019. Maybe we’ll even end up with two new albums, who knows?”

In the notes to recent releases you stress the fact that you didn’t use compression or limiting. Or in the case of ‘The Heavy Soul Sessions’: “All music was played by hand … without computer manipulation.” Do you feel technology is having too big an impact on today’s music in general?

“Take the example of modern rap. It could not really exist without modern technology. It uses computers, drum machines, clip-launchers, auto-tuned vocals, etc. But I am from an older era, a time before that stuff existed in music. I am from the old days when you had to play all of the music yourself, with your hands, the old-fashioned way.”

“There is no need to make your music ‘louder’: that is why God made the volume knob on your stereo so big!” (Gayle Ellett on compression)

“As far as compression is concerned, too much of it will absolutely ruin a good record! The distortion – like a big blanket over your speakers – is horrid, and a low dynamic range makes the music sound far away and weak. So I rarely use it, or I only use a tiny bit. There is no need to make your music ‘louder’: that is why God made the volume knob on your stereo so big! It’s the main knob! Just turn it up. Even for radio play, the radio stations auto-level the music in advance, using the Orban Optimod System. So there is no need to do it ourselves.”

But you do record digitally, right?

“Yes I do and I love recording onto computers. When we began making records, everything was on tape. But tape has a lot of background noise or hiss. And you always need to be very careful, because if you record too quietly you’d hit the noise-floor, and if you record too loudly it will distort. But with computers, there is a much wider dynamic range: the noise floor is extremely low, about 30dB lower than tape. So you have a much a larger space to make music in.”

Talking about rap, I sense it’s not really your favourite kind of music?

“I do not like rap music. But being nearly sixty years old, I am not supposed to like rap. It’s for the young kids of today. It is supposed to annoy older people. People that make successful music know very clearly who their target audience is. Besides, kids desperately want to be different from their parents, and music helps them achieve that sense of independence. They have very different values. So when a rapper writes about violence, sexist womanizing, cash materialism, breaking the law, fame and fortune, those values might appeal to the kids, but not to their parents or grandparents. The same was true when rock music came into being. Jazz, new age and classical on the other hand are intentionally targeted to older people or musicians. Well, that’s my view.”

You reinvigorated that view by releasing the second Hillmen album ‘The Whiskey Mountain Sessions Vol. II’, which was recorded with just four people in a room. No edits at all, just three long-form, organic jams. What are ambitions with that particular band?

Hillmen Whiskey Mountain Sessions Volume 2“Hillmen is a group that only plays entirely improvised music. We just tune up and begin playing, with absolutely no pre-determined structure or plans. This style is very challenging and difficult to play well. And it is extremely unpopular! It is often ‘hit & miss’, sometimes it results in good music, but many times it falls flat on its face! But it is always great ear-training, great practice, and it makes you a much better player. We all play in other bands too, so Hillmen is like taking a vacation from ‘regular’ music.

Finally, what does Gayle Ellett do when he’s not making music?

“Sleep. When I am not sleeping, I am working on music. I am obsessed with music. It makes life less painful.”

Head over to www.GayleEllett.com to see how Gayle spends his waking hours.
Find out all about Djam Karet’s massive back catalogue on Bandcamp.
And tune in later to discover five great albums recommend by Gayle.

 

Bill Laurance interview

Bill Laurance: “Snarky Puppy is a band of brothers” // Interview

“I want to break down as many barriers as possible.” An in-depth chat with Snarky Puppy co-founder and Grammy-winner Bill Laurance about struggling for succes with the Snarky family, carving out his own solo path, the state of jazz today and working with the legendary C of CSNY.

“That’s crazy,” emits Bill Laurance as he leans over the mindmap I made in preparation of our conversation. It’s a surprisingly supportive and amiable remark from someone whose sacrificing his precious pre-gig pastime to talk to a complete stranger. Less than two and a half hours later Bill would hit the stage with Snarky Puppy in Brussels, promoting Grammy-winning album ‘Culcha Vulcha’. And still, he seemed thrilled to sit and talk.

Over the sixty or so minutes that followed, Bill greeted every question with enthusiasm, thoughtfulness and genuine kindness, showing that behind the amazing musician of albums like Snarky’s ‘We Like It Here’ [released 2014] and his own ‘Aftersun’ [2016] is an equally wonderful person. Even in the midst of months of worldwide touring.

“Night after night
people in the band take
turns in having the heat”

Bill: “Whenever we play live, we try to be as much in the moment as we can. And to find something new to say every night. Night after night people in the band take turns in having the heat, you know. We’re learning all the time, we keep pushing other.”

A Snarky gig typically features tight interplay and blistering solo’s. How do you achieve that intensity every single night?

“Well, Michael is our musical director really. He’s giving the cues. But we’ve also got a great deal of freedom. Solo spots tend to change night after night. There are certain solo’s that are fixed, and then there are others that aren’t. The lengths are depending on the song. But if they’re really feeling great, they can keep going for quite a long time. As a musician in Snarky, you’re always open to that possibility.”

And yet, Snarky Puppy doesn’t have a fixed line-up.

“It’s quite a cool thing that. The rotating of musicians was born out of necessity. Members of the band would be booked for other shows early on. So Michael would have to find other people. That in itself has ended up in evolving the band to a cooperative. Right now there’s about 20 guys in regular rotation and an extra 10 who know the material and come in and out. Where now effectively on tour for about 2.5 months but our line-up changes 3 times. Generally there’s a core group that always remains the same. After Seattle, me and Marcello [Wolaski, percussion], Chris [McQueen, guitar] and Bob [Reynolds, saxophone] are leaving, being replaced by other people.”

[note: Bill was replaced by Bobby Sparks (Moog and Hammond) and Bob Lanzetti took on guitar duties. The horns department didn’t get a replacement for Reynolds. Instead, electric violinist Zack Brock was added to the line-up. I had the chance to attend two shows with different band, and wrote an account on how the sound changed.]

Family

For an outsider, Snarky Puppy and its related record label GroundUP seem like a tight community. Is that correct?

“Definitely. I think it’s one of the things that sets us apart. We’re like a band of brothers. We’ve been in this together for about 14 years now. During that time we’ve toured the world several times and we all had to sleep on floors and share beds at some points. Snarky’s like a family. And that sense of community is always there. It even extends to our audience. After a show we always try to come out to do signings and have a chat. That’s not a very common thing among artists.”

You’re suggesting the early years in the band were no bed of roses.

“It’s been a real struggle. We toured the States tirelessly before we got our break, often playing in front of tiny audiences and hardly making any money. But I think one of the most important things is that somehow we always managed to turn any difficulty into an advantage. We never got too pulled down by troubles, even tough we had plenty. We were driven by this unwritten rule. We would always find a way to keep coming back.”

Snarky Puppy Bill Laurance interview

Democracy

In the meantime, you’ve won three Grammy Awards with Snarky Puppy, arguably the biggest music prize in the world. What’s the impact of that? Did those Grammy’s open new doors for you?

“There’s no question about the difference that it has made. When we received that first Grammy for the song Something [with soul singer Layla Hathaway, 2013], everything happened. It still can be tricky. But we’re lucky now to be able to develop our own solo projects and play in front of sold-out rooms. Those Grammy’s definitely make people raise their heads. We just sold out Brixton Academy in London, a 5000-capacity. Ticket-wise it was the biggest show we ever played. This tour really marks the point were we really are becoming well-known beyond our circles. People who aren’t jazz musicians themselves are finally noticing us.”

“We all try to serve
the greater good
of the song”

You’re all very advanced musicians. How do you avoid clashing ego’s?

“We are all very aware of the others musicians around us and are sensitive to what’s required within the context of a composition or arrangement. You have to. Especially since there’s so many people on stage. More often than not, for example, I’m playing melodies with one hand, because the bass part is covered by somebody else. We’re happy to show some restraint if it serves the greater good of the song. That’s what drives Snarky Puppy as a collective.”

Sound like real democracy.

“It is. 70% of the material is written by Michael. But as far as the more detailed arrangements go, they kind of evolve through playing them live with the band. It’s reflective of the way the band has grown. For years, we all invested our time in the band, and weren’t making any money. So now that it’s finally a sustainable undertaking, there’s this very strong sense of looking after the band.”

Right time, right place

Ever since you serendipitously met Michael League at a gig in Leeds, you’ve been the only British guy in the band. What did it take for Michael to convince you to come to the States and join Snarky on its first recording session?

“Me and Mike, you know, we hit it off and I loved his playing. And I think he liked mine. So he invited me out. And it was very much a right time, right place thing. It was looking to spread my wings. And he was looking for a keys player to record ‘The Only Constant’ [released 2006]. The rest is history, I guess.”

[About Michael League]:
“It was an opportunity to
travel with someone who
had a very creative vision”

What were your plans at the time of your first meeting?

“To be honest, it was exactly what I was looking for. It was an opportunity to play with better musicians than me and to travel with someone who had a very creative vision of what he wanted to do. I had just left university and was trying to develop a career in music and to immerse myself in as many opportunities as possible.

A record like ‘We Like It Here’ almost reached mythical status among fans. I suppose a lot of people wish they were actually there in Utrecht (Netherlands) to witness to recording, which was done in front of a small studio audience. Was that a one-off?

“From ‘Tell Your Friends’ [released 2010] onwards, it’s always been in the studio with an audience. ‘Culcha Vulcha’ was a different case, we did that one in the studio with overdubs, it wasn’t actually live. We recorded the backing tracks, came back and overdubbed. So we could really go to town on effecting the sounds and everything.”

“For ‘We Like It Here’ we performed the songs to three different audiences on three different nights. We might have played two sets a night. We had a lot of takes to choose from. So we picked the best. We didn’t piece bits of different performances together into a final song. I think we only used full takes.”

One song I find particularly interesting is Jambone, largely because of Mark Lettieri’s majestic guitar solo. Did he invent that one on the spot?

“I think he definitely thought about how he was going to pitch it. And we played it a few times already so you got a sense of were the peaks and troughs are. But if I remember correctly, the ideas he’s playing on the record are of the moment.”

Crazy, allow me to raise the level of nerdiness: did you use a mellotron on Semente (from ‘Culcha Vulcha’)? There’s a lot of real flute, but in the background there seems to be some flute toned mellotron as well.

“I don’t think we had a mellotron in the studio. And I’m not playing that part, that would be a question for Justin [Stanton]. I suppose he played it on a Prophet, but it does sound like a mellotron, you’re right. That said, I did use mellotron on my records ‘Swift’ [released 2015] and ‘Aftersun’.”

on page 2 of this article, Bill talks about his solo work. On page 3, you’ll finds his thoughts on jazz today and working with David Crosby.